How to recognize poor executive function


Executive function means being able to see the big picture and sort through details to arrive at a good decision. You probably have met more than a few people with very poor executive function. This person is probably very smart but seemingly incompetent in one area—often at work, or in daily life skills, or both. Executive function disorder is common among people with Asperger Syndrome.

I have terrible executive function. Sometimes I make decisions that are so bad that I look like I’m being ridiculous on purpose. It’s simply unbelievable to many people that I could make such incompetent decisions. But in the moment, I can’t see it.

To be sure, I can see it in other people. When I’m coaching others I can tell within five minutes if I’m dealing with someone with poor executive function. Many times I have said, “The crux of your career problems is that you have an executive function problem.” And after the person does a bit of searching on Google, they thank me over and over again for helping them understand why their life felt like it was falling apart and they couldn’t stop it.

My inability to get proper ID is an example of executive function problems. I can tell you this—I know it intellectually. But still, if I had this story to do all over again, I’m not sure I would have done anything better except maybe pay someone to help me sooner. Executive function is the biggest problem I have and the hardest problem to make other people understand. But maybe this post will help you understand the full extent of an executive function gap.

In 2008 I took more than 50 flights within the US. With no photo ID. You’d be surprised how easy that is to do. Los Angeles has so many people coming through with no photo ID that there are 40 people on staff to check people with no ID. At O’Hare they called a special phone number and then gave me the choice of three street names and I had to pick the one I had never lived on.

In LaGuardia I lied. They asked what happened to my ID and I said I lost it. They asked why I didn’t get a new ID. I said I just lost it last week. I only lied because I thought I’d sound like a crazy person for not having any ID for more than a year.

The truth is that I didn’t replace the lost ID because I couldn’t. I tried.

Since I changed my name, my birth certificate no longer works as ID. I need two more pieces of paper to show who I am and people don’t like that. So getting ID started to be a fuss.

I realized that my social security card no longer worked. I needed to change the name on it. But I didn’t. I threw it out. I didn’t know that just because it no longer officially works doesn’t mean you should throw it out. Is there a word that is the opposite of hoarder? That’s me.

I got used to using my passport as my ID. But while living in Madison, I lost my passport during a trip. People told me not to take my passport everywhere. But I had to–it was my only ID.

That is bad, because in Madison you need a driver’s license. Because you have to drive.

You need a lot of stuff to get a driver’s license. You need a state-issued ID. You need a picture ID. You need a social security card. You need all that.

But every time I went to the DMV to try to get a license I wouldn’t really get all that list of stuff. I’d get some of it. I’d sort of try to get the stuff but I couldn’t do it.

It turns out the first offense for driving without a license is a $200 fine. That seemed okay.

I got that fine in about two months of driving. So I went back to the DMV. But now I had an unpaid ticket, and you can’t pay the ticket at the DMV.

Then I got another moving violation and my license got suspended.

But you cannot live in Wisconsin and not drive. So I drove. I tried to drive only a little bit. And I told myself I would get my license as soon as the suspension was over.

I got pulled over again at 3am when I was coming back from a business trip. I was driving down the middle of the road. On the line.

They had me step out of the car to take a drunk driving test.

The said put your right hand on your nose. I got the wrong hand. I told them I don’t know my left and right.

They ignored me. They told me to lift my left leg, and they pointed to my left leg so I’d get it right.

I lifted it really high, almost to my shoulder, because I can, because of yoga, and I wanted to impress them with my sobriety.

They told me I need to follow directions if I’m going to pass the test.

I walked in a straight line. They told me they were shocked, but I passed.

Still, they impounded my car because I was driving on a suspension and they drove me home in the police car.

I had my friend pick up my car. And then I drove it. In hindsight, there were better alternatives than that. But at the time I didn’t see any.

Just as my suspension ended, I got pulled over.

The policeman said to me, “Do you know why you got pulled over?”

I said, “No.”

He said, “Your tags are expired.”

I was shocked. I didn’t think people really kept track of their tags.

He said, “Can I see your license?”

I started crying.

The kids said, from the back seat, “Are you in trouble? Are you going to jail? Did you break the law?”

I asked the policeman if I could get out of the car and talk to him because I didn’t want my kids to hear.

He said okay.

I explained that I didn’t have a license. I told him I’ve been trying to get one but I couldn’t and then I got it suspended and I said please don’t make it so it’s suspended again. I’ll never get a license.

He gave the kids stickers and coloring books while he made calls on his radio and wrote tickets in his car. He ticketed me for the tags but not the license.

I went back to get a license and I couldn’t do it. I didn’t have the right combination of name and address to match everything. I had changed my name and where I live so often that nothing matched. I went home discouraged.

I started thinking like a felon. I was scared of the police.  I noticed them all the time. Sometimes I’d get so nervous driving behind a police car that I’d make a turn, just to get away.

You’re probably wondering what the Farmer was doing through all of this. He was having a complete shit fit. He was trying to understand why I couldn’t get a license. He was trying to tell me that I needed to take the rules seriously. He was telling me that I was going to ruin his life and the kids’ lives if I didn’t get a license.

To his credit he was always really nice about it. He knows me well. He knows that it is probably true that I cannot navigate bureaucracy by myself.

Slowly, I started taking steps to get my license. I hired someone to help me. I was making progress. I had a Wisconsin State ID and a social security card. And I was gearing up to the take the written exam.

To give you and idea of how hard it is for me to take a standardized test, when I took the GRE I scored in the 17th percentile. I think that’s where people score when English is not their first—or second—language.

My son sat next to me while I surreptitiously popped a Xanax and started the test.

The DMV person told my son he had to sit farther away from me.

There are a lot of questions that I’ve studied for. For example, I know that if you hit a deer and you do not take it, the next driver can take the deer home for himself.

I pass the written test. The Farmer and Jeanenne have a mini-celebration.

Jeanenne drives me to the DMV in Darlington to take the road test.  I wait too long at intersections but they still pass me.

Then they let me take six photos until I get one I like.

And Jeanenne says, “It’s amazing that even when you are trying to follow the rules and be like everyone else, you still get people to make exceptions for you. “

But look. It’s a good picture:

127 replies
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  1. Erin
    Erin says:

    It is a good picture! Thanks for pointing out how hard it is to get a photo ID … something that seems to be lost on a good percentage of the population of Wisconsin who doesn’t think that requiring a photo ID to vote disenfranchises voters.

  2. Nelly
    Nelly says:

    Cripes – what’s a husband for if he can’t help you get your shit together? Isn’t that why men marry women and have them plan *everything* so that all they need to do is pack their shaving kit for a family vacation. Oh, I just answered my own question…

    • MM
      MM says:

      Righty o, it’s the wife’s job to have outstanding executive function so the dude only has to show up at work and his hobbies. Hubs and I both work, but I’ve still taken over 99% of the executive function stuff in our lives. He screws something up on his rare attempts – I’m now wondering if he does that on purpose….

    • Natasha
      Natasha says:

      Wow! I LOVE your blog. I could read it forever. I’m not technically Aspie but I seem to ‘get’ it all, the way your thoughts are expressed and your attention to detail, it feels just like I think! But the teaspoon picture – I preferred the second. It was more regular and didn’t have worrying scratches and vertical lines all clashing with each other!!!

      • Natasha
        Natasha says:

        Sorry that comment was for Paul Hassing’s blog, not Penelope’s which in any case I always read. I thought I was replying to Paul not to Penelope, but anyway…The teaspoon pic is on Paul’s fantastically pure and concise blog, those are the adjectives which best describe it to me.

  3. Barchbo
    Barchbo says:

    It IS a good photo – you look happy. And relieved.

    Does your EF issue cause anxiety – do you feel relief when things like your ID issue get resolved?

    • GingerR
      GingerR says:

      That’s how people who just popped a Xanax look. I guess they don’t make you show picture ID to pick that up at pharmacys in Wisconsin. In Maryland you aren’t going anywhere with a controlled substance until they’ve seen an ID.

      • lillie
        lillie says:


        You look amazing. I don’t care if it is the Xanax or something else: “I’ll have what she is having!”.


  4. Amy Parmenter
    Amy Parmenter says:

    It sure is. And a great story. Just getting a license, or trying to, is reason enough not to move or not to change your name when you get married. I couldn’t believe what a hassle it was. Bravo Penelope – licensed in Wisconsin!!!!

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      Harris Bank didn’t like it. They didn’t like that I said my family got paid by the mob and then did banking at Harris.

      I am trying to be a person who is a rule follower and easy to deal with. Not that I’ll ever be easy to deal with, but I’m trying. So I took the post down per their request.


  5. Jamie
    Jamie says:

    That is a nice picture.

    I got a new one recently too and I didn’t ask them to retake the picture until I liked it. I really should have…

  6. Katherine
    Katherine says:

    I was highly annoyed that you aren’t allowed to smile for DMV photos in Indiana. Every time I pull out my driver’s license, I want to die from embarrassment. Prison mug shot extraordinaire!

    I was glad to see that Indiana has a process for people who change gender – providing a doctor’s note. That’s progress considering the Indiana Dept. of Health won’t allow any mention of GLBT in their state information. Not joking.

    • Pen
      Pen says:

      It’s similar for passport photos now. You are not supposed to smile but instead to have a “neutral expression.”

      It does give one a bit of a mug shot look, and I don’t like my passport nearly as much as I used to (you’d think teeth would just be “more information,” but I guess it must not work like that).

  7. paula
    paula says:

    Good–you will likely need a drivers license to vote, even if everyone in Darlington already knows you, your business…etc.

    • Pen
      Pen says:

      I don’t think that’s true. I mean, many people choose not to have a driver’s license, or don’t qualify for one for some reason, but they still have the right to vote.

  8. Chris M.
    Chris M. says:

    I wanted to ask — what happened to the post between the review of Seth’s book and this one? The sponsored one. I read it, then it was gone, I thought I had dreamed about it but then it was still showing on my RSS. Huh.

  9. Chris Yeh
    Chris Yeh says:

    Executive function is one of those key traits that people assume is correlated with intelligence, but isn’t.

    My dad is a brilliant EE Ph.D. who has worked as a research scientist his entire life, but God help us all if he needs to talk on the phone with customer service.

    And yes, it is a very nice picture. Congratulations!

  10. Yael Sandler
    Yael Sandler says:

    I almost had an anxiety attack just reading about it. When I had to get my license in a new state I was so grateful to my mother who thought it was still her job to help me with this. I was over 40. I did pass and also had a nice photo and that did some how make it all worthwhile.

    I have some E.F hurdles currently but unfortunately they are out of her league and anyway her help was all well and good until last summer she stood beside the life guard on the beach telling him she thought I had swum out too far.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      Yeah. I think you’re right. I wrote this post very long, and my editor cut about half of it. One of the parts he cut is this:

      I was at a friend’s house in Madison, and I told him about how I really need to get my license and I’m scared. And now it’s suspended again.

      I said, “I just don’t get it. I live on a farm. If I didn’t drive to get food my kids would starve. There is no way this can really be the intent of the law.”

      He said, “Of course you can drive. There are exemptions from suspensions all the time.”

      “Oh. Really? I had no idea. It didn’t ocurr to me.”

      “Rich white people do not have suspended licesnes. They get a lawyer. You should get a lwayer. The lawyer will fix everything.”

      He gaves me the name of a lawyer he knew.

      After $5000, my license was unsuspended.

      Well, if I had one. So I guess it’s just the idea of my license that was unsuspended.

  11. kristin
    kristin says:

    i think of you every time i’m at the DMV trying to get my license. i’ve thought about you 11 times in 2012.

    also: thank you over and over again for helping me understand why my life feels like it is falling apart and i can’t stop it.

  12. Skweekah
    Skweekah says:

    Driving gives your freedom. No matter where you live. I wouldnt go out at night if I didnt have a car and drivers license. Sometimes, I wish that this wasnt the case, but it is. Move to Japan, you feel safe enough not to worry too much about personal safety when traveling on public transport at night. It’s a nice feeling.

  13. Jayne
    Jayne says:

    (1) I have had your same nightmare with ID, and could completely relate to what you said about starting to act like a felon.
    (2) I never heard of executive function disorder until I read your post, and just like you said, five minutes and a google search had me pointing at the screen and shouting so THAT’s my problem! Just wanted to thank you for making a potentially very big difference in one person’s life (if she can get it together enough to do something about it).

  14. Harriet May
    Harriet May says:

    This makes me sort of feel better about getting my citizenship. I am so scared about it. My green card runs out this summer so I have until then to get things sorted out. But it’s not that far away. I tried to get my citizenship a few years ago, but I got declined. You see, my parents sent me to boarding school in England and then I stayed for college, so I had been going back and forth for eight years. And to become a US citizen, you have to have spent at least half your time in the US and you can’t have taken any trips out of the country that lasted more than 6 months. I didn’t realize this, so I applied, paid my $700, went for my interview, took the citizenship test. I passed everything. Except I’d spent too much time out of the country. So I got declined.

    It’s been almost three years since then, and I’m hoping this time I’ll pass. But I need to get two photographs of me to send with my application, and that seems like a gigantic task. Which is stupid, because logically I know it isn’t. I even took a photo of myself for my student ID card when I was doing my Masters at Durham University and that worked fine. And I’m scared of the test, even though I have already taken it and know it’s no big deal and it’s all the stuff you learn in elementary school, like “Name one person who signed the Declaration of Independence” or “What are the three branches of government.” I’ve lived in America since I was 5. I just want to be an American. I sound American and I act American, except for maybe that I like marmite. So I just don’t want to jump through any more hoops for it to be official.

    • sophie
      sophie says:

      Harriet, I hope you can get your citizenship. When Americans complain about foreigners in our country (illegals, especially), they have no clue how hard it is to follow our insane immigration rules. They also don’t realize how expensive it is. My daughter-in-law is a foreigner striving do everything exactly correct as she goes through the process of of becoming an American citizen. It’s like immigration constantly changes things just to play with her mind.

    • Passport Photos
      Passport Photos says:

      Don’t sweat the photos, Harriet. CIS accepts passport photos, and you can get those taken at a wide variety of locations, including many Post Offices, Wal-Mart, Walgreens, CVS, photo shops, etc. Pick a place, get ’em done, and take that worry off your mind.

      Good luck on your exam!

    • dancinglonghorn
      dancinglonghorn says:

      I became a US citizen. The test is 10 questions out of a possible 100 questions. You get a book with all 100 questions and answers before the test so you only need to study the 100 given questions. You only need to get 7 right to pass. It was not a big deal at all to an English-speaking person.

  15. Mel B
    Mel B says:

    You should copy all your cards: Identification card, social security card and your drivers license and if you get another passport copy that too. Keep them in a safe place like a deposit box at a bank….that way when you lose them again you can replace them since you still have the information on hand. It’s much easier to replace lost when you can take copies with you and say your wallet got stolen or something.

  16. Jen
    Jen says:

    Haha, I don’t have Asperger’s, but I, too, am incompetent with IDs. I understand. The logistical stuff overwhelms me. I’m more comfortable quitting my job and starting my own business in a horrible economic environment than remembering to go to the DMV to get new tags (I got fined for that one, too). I don’t know what this means about me, but I think you could be onto something. I think I just don’t pay attention to details enough and… well… that’s not good.

    Another great post :) Thanks for always being so honest and vulnerable and making me feel not quite as alone. I laughed during this one. It was good.

  17. Jude
    Jude says:

    Well done, that is a fantastic achievement…and I can tell you’re pleased with yourself. Extra special.

  18. Maple Ridge Farm
    Maple Ridge Farm says:

    There is that great computer bag – the one you had a link to a while back on your blog – I loved it then and love it now – is that a new color? Would you mind re-posting the link?

    As an aside, I am a NY-er living the dream (that sometimes feels like a nightmare) with my own farmer on Ohio. During rough patches I just take a deep breath and remind myself he is good for me and good for our kids and an amazing man – that usually convinces me stay put.

      • Andi
        Andi says:

        Such a cool purse! I checked out the website & now it’s on my *want* list. Sadly, it isn’t likely to happen in this century. I can’t justify paying $265 for a bag when I don’t normally pay more than $25. I know you get what you pay for, but my budget keeps me in the cheap seat. :(

        ***green with envy***

  19. Andi
    Andi says:

    I make my husband order the pizza. I make my husband call the bank. I make my husband call my mom to ask her to babysit. I simply cannot bring myself to talk on the phone. My license got suspended because I never got around to paying a ticket, and it took the fear of getting arrested (I received a nice form letter in the mail threatening such) to force my hand. I am a competent person, but for whatever reason, I am unable to do simple personal administrative tasks that seem “no big deal” to most people. Glad I’m not alone in this. But sad you had to go through that anxiety. One day at a time, right?

    • Lauren
      Lauren says:

      I hate making phone calls, too. I can eventually make myself do it, but it’s very stressful, and procrastinated until the last minute. I had a car in a fender-bender once that was never fixed because I couldn’t bring myself to call the insurance company. I’ll drive up to 20 minutes each way to talk to someone face-to-face and avoid making a phone call.

  20. Ashlee DePhillippo
    Ashlee DePhillippo says:

    “Poor executive function”. So that’s what it’s called! I too have difficulty navigate bureaucracy (or anything resembling it) by myself. Thank goodness for my hubs. I will be looking this up and I’m already for thanking you over and over again.

  21. Lisa
    Lisa says:

    I loved this post. I read it though as not so much about executive functioning but rather a post on when it’s time to ask/pay for help.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      So true! I used to get upset paying people to do things that I think should be easy for me to do myself. Now I think paying for stuff that’s hard for me is really high-functioning and a good use of my money.


  22. Grace
    Grace says:

    I think your main problem is that you’re female. Lots of men have this problem (my husband and father, for example), and get around it most successfully by having their wives take care of all this stuff.

    For whatever reason, men tend to be a lot less willing to do the same for their wives.

  23. exasperated
    exasperated says:

    Okay, you understand Asperger’s enough to figure what happened to you –after the fact –and why something is virtually impossible.

    Now learn more. Von Economo neurons, and their function.

    You’ll be glad you did; more things will make sense. Even if each new layer of understanding doesn’t, in and of itself, fix problems . . . ithe knowledge will help you to hire appropriate fixers or helpers.

  24. Robin Ong
    Robin Ong says:

    It’s a two edged sword for people with good executive function. I think I’m quite decent with this and you know what. I can get so hung up on what need to do the next morning, or next week. What project need to be completed…until I’m too tired to have sex :(

  25. chris
    chris says:

    So, I am wondering and I am betting that there are a great many of us who have to confront their own executive function deficits at tax time. I do!

    Tax forms/requirements, the DMV, the Social Security Administration . . . all this makes me yearn for a simpler life, perhaps Amish.

    Smart phones, Tevo, iPads, mp3 players,and other forms of technology have a similar effect on me . . .

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      That’s a great point! One year, when I had recently graduated college, I got so overwhelmed that I only sort of filed taxes. I did such a poor job with the formsw that I send a note with the forms that said to the IRS that I’m sorry that I did a bad job and maybe they could just finish it and tell me if I owe any more.


  26. Mara
    Mara says:

    As far as I know, I don’t have poor executive function. But, I have found it very difficult to deal with any state government agency. As a general rule, no one gives any extra information. They love saying yes or no. That’s it. I remember having to make two or three trips to the DMV to help my daughter when she got her license. They would tell you one piece of information you were missing. Then when you brought that, there would be another piece of information missing. They were deliberately being difficult!

  27. Sister Sister
    Sister Sister says:

    I never really thought about how I have trouble following/understanding written directions. Having to deal with something like getting a license is awful for me.

    I’d settle for being able to get a decent picture at the DMV. good picture!

  28. meistergedanken
    meistergedanken says:

    “He said, “Can I see your license?”
    I started crying.”

    – well, you may not have had a license, but you sure made certain to whip out your ‘pussy pass’, which I wager has seen a lot of use over the years.

    My god, you are all kinds of crazy – I love it!

    • r steven page
      r steven page says:

      Pungent and perceptive comment. Reminds me of the actress (or was it a gangster’s moll?) who said: “I don’t mind it being being a man’s world so long as I’m a woman in it.”

  29. Karin-Renate
    Karin-Renate says:

    Oh yes .. The picture is VERY good ;) No shame in asking for help, thanks for pointing that out in a great read :) Congrats on the driver’s license!

  30. Frank
    Frank says:

    Holy cow, is that what’s going on? I’m driving with a suspended license now because of stupid tolls. (But I’m claiming innocence by reason of my executive malfunction disability.) Sometimes Sunpass doesn’t beep (register) when I go through the tolls and sometimes I forget which car I’m driving and which one has the transponder. So I’m on record for driving on the highway three days without my transponder. I tried to pay my balance by their automated phone system, but it refused me because I’d been driving with a zero balance and it said I need to call back and talk to someone. I don’t need a lecture; I need to pay my damned balance. So I keep driving with a zero balance. Sometime along the way I know I got mail telling me I needed to pay my balance, but now that it’s overdue, those three days (6 transgressions – there and back) now have a $150 or so penalty each. I want to pay the money I owe the tolls, but I’m not paying $1000 for 3 days of missing my transponder. I know I need to go see a lawyer, but I work part time ALL DAY. And I don’t have the stupid money in the bank anyway. Maybe poor executive function is the cause of people going postal.

  31. Amy
    Amy says:

    What I take from this post is screw the rules and stop being part of the sheeple! Love that you could get by without a “proper” ID for a year, and even more amazing, the way you show how people can be manipulated to see things your way- something too many people who follow the rules never try!

  32. karelys
    karelys says:

    I wonder if there is a spectrum for Executive Function. Extremely good and extremely bad and everything in between.

    I am okay with some things and terrible at others but never thought that there is a “mental” problem. I don’t know what else to call it.

    Husband says he’ll make dinner, I say great cause I’ll be so hungry when I am off work!

    He goes to the store about ten minutes before 5 pm (when I am off) and starts gathering stuff. It takes about 20 minutes to cook the mexican rice. He’s not agile in the kitchen so it’ll be a 50 minute ordeal and I’ll have to help. Which normally is romantic but not today (or last night) when I am hungry and someone tells me I’ll get home to a nice cooked meal to enjoy and not to work for :(

    I want to go off on him about how he has to anticipate in little things and big things to make our life easier.

    I used to be great at organizing my finances before we got married. But since we got married it’s a mess! I just can’t zinc two paychecks (4/month) and bills added from his side and my side and new ones creates, yadayada!

    I am a mess and it’s embarrassing. I am always missing something. People tell me they use spread sheets, they use this or that but none of that works with me. It makes me even more anxious.

    How is that he can keep track of every bill paid and everything but can’t get himself to the store half hr before I get off to start dinner??

    And vice versa.

  33. Lesa
    Lesa says:

    Everyone who changes their name has to go through this process and struggles with parts of it, just maybe not the same parts you do! The process is SO complicated and the pieces are intersect, just as you experienced. I’ve changed my name 4 times and I am NOT doing it again.

    BTW, when you current license expires, keep it; don’t throw it out. In the event that you ever lose your current license, taking the expired one to the DMV will make the process of replacement SO much easier.

  34. Sadya
    Sadya says:

    You managed to get three great posts out today – the homeschooling and the mailbag along with this one. All talk about the big picture. I doubt you have trouble with executive function.

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